Fly anglers tend to anthropomorphize the objects of our obsession to such a degree that I often wonder if it’s us or five-year-olds who possess the most active imaginations. Nevertheless, the assertion that fly rods are more than just tools shouldn’t be too hard a claim to swallow. For a group of folks that regularly affirm that trout are capable of elaborate, deductive reasoning, I reckon there’s room for the idea that fly rods are more than the sum of their parts.
The best rods aren’t really friends. They’re more like confidants. They’ve observed every mistake, watched your successes, and stood by during the middling days that make up most of our time spent on the water. If we lived in a world where fly rods could talk, they’d be the stoic buddy who only speaks up to correct your grandstanding. They’d have the final word on every fish story.
In this hypothetical world, they’d also be the only ones capable of objectively telling the story of your growth as an angler. We like to forget about certain events — like the time I threw a rod into Pyramid Lake and threw a fit on the beach like a toddler — or view them through rose-colored glasses. A fly rod would remember every cast, every drop, every fall, every lost or missed fish. Most importantly it would show you how each of those mistakes made you a better angler.
And that’s why I sat on my truck’s tailgate with a heavy heart, staring glumly at a fly rod. It was the first top-of-the-line rod I ever bought myself — a 9’ 5wt Winston. I’d caught grayling and salmon in Alaska with that rod, and cutthroat and golden trout here in the Rockies. Without a doubt, it’s the rod I’ve fished the most. It has the most stories to tell, the most memories locked away.
The last time I’d fished it, though, had been on a float with two friends down Utah’s Green River. My buddies had flown in from both coasts for a whitewater rafting trip, and they planned to arrive a few days before to see if the fishing here is as good as I’ve said. I had my boat ready, rods rigged up, and we hit the water early.
My Winston was strung up with a single dry fly, but I only cast it a few times that day. We’d fished in late August, which can be a tough time on the Green. Anglers have pounded it to death for a few months, the fish have all been caught a few dozen times, and the dry fly takes are so tentative you almost feel bad setting the hook.
In the hurried exhaustion of packing the boat up to head back to the lodge in time for dinner, I stuffed the Winston back inside its rod tube. I didn’t notice that the rod sock was sopping wet. Fast-forward a few weeks. It’s mid-September and I’ve just moved to Evanston, Wyoming, where I’m working as a middle school English teacher. After a long day with the kids, I took off for one of the dozen rivers within an hour’s drive of the school, my trusty Winston riding shotgun.
Wind blew through the sagebrush and the sun was low on the horizon when I parked. It was warm enough I didn’t need waders, so I laced up my boots and went to string up my rod. That’s when I realized the mistake.
Opening the rod tube unleashed a mildew stench that turned my stomach. I groaned as I pulled the rod out and felt the still-damp sock. A few years back, I started building bamboo rods, and I have a decent collection of cane in my quiver. One of the first things you learn about bamboo is that you never store a rod wet. Ever. Under any circumstances. While that’s hammered home to bamboo owners, it holds true for folks who fish graphite, too.
The water left in the rod sock had worked its way into the small cracks and dings in the Winston’s varnish. Mildew grew between the rod’s surface and the varnish. Almost every thread wrap was cloudy with water, mildew, or a combination of the two.
Then I looked at the reel seat. Water had soaked into the wood, causing it to expand and trap the uplocking band on what was previously a gorgeous piece of burled box elder. The reel seat spacer stood proud of the uplocking threaded barrel by at least 1/16 of an inch, if not more.
The final nail in the coffin came when I tried to rub some of the water and mildew off of the rod. It had eaten away at the varnish over the rod inscription to the point that simply drying it removed all the varnish and hand-lettering.
In the space of a few weeks, water ruined my first and favorite fly rod. I almost didn’t want to fish, even though I had more than a few spare rods in my truck. Fishing felt wrong after learning my own stupidity had cost me a dear friend. I still fished, but I didn’t catch anything. On the drive back to Evanston, I dodged deer and antelope and thought more about the Winston that lay drying on my passenger seat.
Often, we think fly rods will last forever. Our grandfathers or fathers have passed down enough rods, and the vintage rod market is alive and well, that they seem timeless. Of course, they’re not, and I felt more than a bit ridiculous at being forlorn over the loss of some graphite, thread, glue, nickel silver, and wood. It wasn’t just the rod that I’d lost, though. It was all the memories I’d made while using it, the fish I’d caught, the places I’d been. Instead of a tangible connection to those experiences, all I had left now were pictures on Instagram. That’s hardly as firm a diary as a fly rod is.